Tale of two cities, part-I: Jo’burg

Cities are fascinating; complex and with distinct personalities, and like many distinguished persons have nicknames. More often than not this nickname is descriptive of the city except in cases like Jo’burg where it is merely a truncation. But for Johannesburg this is still an apt moniker as it clearly brings out the city’s no-nonsense vibe. Like it’s name, Jo’burg has nothing fancy about it. It is an African city, going about it’s business being a transit hub, industrial hotspot, providing much needed economic support to its locals and transports alike. Yes, it has history, some cruel, some hopeful. But it has no time to stop and indulge in it. There is no reveling in Jo’burg. It has got it’s feet firmly planted in the present. It is gritty and raw, but never rude. Busy and bustling, but never brusque. Very like Madras of the 90s. And like Madras of the 90s beloved to its people and unfathomable to its visitors.

We reached Jo’burg  late at night on a weekend and sure enough had to fend off many potential cab drivers while waiting for our uber. I love taking uber in foreign cities as they are cheap, safe and best way to get a conversation going with the locals. Our first driver told us all about the anti-uber protests and the vandalism he suffers at the hands of cab drivers. Our 20 min ride to Rosebank went very fast as our conversation quickly devolved into The Donald. There was no getting rid of The Donald, not even a hemisphere away!

Rosebank is a residential neighborhood, very much like RA Puram in Chennai, with it’s independent houses with walled gardens blooming with flowers of different hues and shapes. Our Airbnb host had two cats who kept us entertained during our stay. Our first African animal sighting! And they looked mighty like their Indian brethen; brazen and wiry. We didn’t do much sightseeing in Rosebank, although we did manage to take in the mall. But that was more for a last minute frantic search for adapters than for tourism purposes. It was quite a large mall, on par with any mall in the US except that it closes at 6pm sharp. The mall was bustling with people as we walked into a Pick ‘n’ pay (a grocery supermarket) to see if we can grab some snacks for the next day. 10 minutes later when we got out, it was deserted with only a few restaurants open. We enquired of the restaurant hosts who were blase about the fact that of course the mall is deserted, it is 5 min past 6 pm, the witching hour. As we stepped out of the mall, still marveling at the rapidity with which all those people just disappeared, we saw some stragglers rushing to catch the quickly departing out-of-town vans. Presumably, it was the last ones leaving the locality. Waves of share auto (the mainstay of 90s Madras) nostalgia wash over us and the resemblance to that bygone city got stronger as we made our way back home on foot over cracked pavements with a lone flickering street light illuminating the 0.3 mile stretch. Not a soul in sight.

The next morning, another uber ride later we landed in Satyagraha House. Growing up in India, you think you know all there is to know about the Mahatma and his teachings. However, the Satyagraha house in Jo’burg gives you an in-depth perspective about Gandhi as a man on his way to becoming the Mahatma. While Natal and Durban have their Gandhi sites, the one in Jo’burg is where he stayed with Kallenbach and practiced the principles of satyagraha which he then brought to India. Kallenbach was an architect who designed and built this house where the two of them stayed for about 2 years. The place has a serene beauty to it and well maintained with some original furniture still in use. The displays of Gandhi and Kallenbach’s study, books, photographs and correspondence is well annotated with great anecdotes to keep the interest going. Having the place converted into a guest house is a great idea as it pays for its own upkeep while also giving a very comfortable and exotic stay option to tourists and guests. We went there to have lunch (which you need to book in advance) and visit the museum. They do have guides that take you through the whole museum, but we just did the tour ourselves. The food was very good and healthy meal. They cater to many dietary needs and we had a fantastic vegetarian meal. They were even kind enough to provide us with an adapter to charge our phone as we sat down to lunch! It is a great place to get a taste of the varied history of South Africa as well as for Indians interested in understanding the evolution of the Father of the Nation! In recent years the Indian government has acquired the Kallenbach letters which includes correspondence between the two of them and is on display in the National Archives in Delhi.

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Wall of photos and timeline of Gandhi’s last years in South Africa
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Loft-Gandhi’s portion (called Upper House) and basement-Kallenbach’s portion (called Lower House)
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Kallenbach’s design. The main house and study
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Fragrant Magnolia in the front courtyard

Our next stop was of course the Apartheid Museum. One the most striking aspect of this visit was how refreshingly honest the museum employees were. When we showed up with only 45 min left before closing, they at first refused to sell us tickets as they thought it would be unfair to make us pay full price when we will only be able to see one third of the museum at the most. It took a lot of cajoling from us to make them sell us tickets and even then they charged only senior citizen price for the both of us! Now that is something we don’t see in Chennai (even in its Madras of the 90s avatar!) or anywhere else that I have been to. Describing this museum is futile, like describing a dream; elusive and tangible at the same time. What am I going to say that hasn’t been said better and more effectively by the hundreds of tourists who have been there before me? The impact of the museum can be gauged by the sharp bang of tossed rocks that reverberates at the exit. As we make our way out of the museum you throw a pebble at a pile of stones (metaphor for apartheid). It symbolizes the visitors’s commitment to eradicate apartheid, and the force with which each and everyone of us dashed the pebble at the pile was a clear indication of the power of a well curated museum.

Most of my trips are made memorable with interactions with local people that I meet while taking public transport in the cities I visit. But given the cautionary advices against using this form of transport on most travel websites, I thought I wouldn’t have that unique experience here. But I reckoned without my uber drivers. If you had a choice on your mode of travel within cities, I would recommend an uber trip or two. I have had the most interesting conversations ranging from current African politics (there was an election looming during my visit and the driver would have given any armchair desi uncle a run for his money with his cynicism) to the most profound philosophical debate on the concept of identity. The latter conversation started off very prosaically with a “where are you from?” standard format dialog. It progressed via a short discourse on Hinduism (by my mom), Christianity (uber driver), the need for religions (me), the origin of tribes (driver) the concept of self (me), the need for identity (driver), The Donald and the wall (exclamations all around). Needless to say, my uber rides where the most memorable of adventures in Jo’burg. They should be used to promote tourism in the city: Visit Jo’burg, the city of uber conversations!

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